The Government of Saskatchewan officially launched an organ and tissue donor registry on Sept. 3, the anniversary of the most difficult day for former Estevan resident Blaine Pho and his family.
Two years ago, on that day, his beloved wife and wonderful mother of two children Michelle passed away.
“Michelle was diagnosed with lupus, and after 10 years of fighting this disease it left her with irreversible kidney damage,” Pho said in his sincere and deep video testimony released on the day of the registry launch.
Blaine and Michelle met when they were 25 years old.
“We were out with friends, we got introduced. And instantly we knew that there was something between the two of us and before long we were together quite seriously and engaged within a year,” recalled Pho in the video.
Michelle died just a couple of months after their 20-year anniversary. Pho talks about her as “an extremely kind and sensitive, caring and loving person.”
“She was a fantastic mother and friend and my soulmate. She was a schoolteacher in the city, she taught primary grades. Kindergarten to Grade 4 was where she spent most of her years teaching. And she was a very, very compassionate and kind teacher, but it was also a part of who she was,” Pho said in the interview with the Mercury.
Despite all challenges, Michelle kept teaching 20 per cent for over five years, even though she could have been completely on disability.
“She did it because it was something that she was very passionate about and it was part of who she was. It made her feel better to be able to be involved with the school.”
She was also involved with the community and she was helping first-generation Canadians. Faith and the church also played a big role in her life.
Michelle became ill with lupus nephritis, an autoimmune disease, in 2004. For about 10 years, she was ill off and on when the disease would attack her immune system and some of her organs.
“She aggressively treated it with really, really good doctors and good healthcare here. It took them about 10 years, and they were able to put lupus into remission,” Pho recalled.
But while in active phases, the disease damaged Michelle's kidneys, and she was put on a transplant list. After Michelle went into remission, the family could finally breathe again and thought that everything would be okay, but over the course of the next five years, her kidneys slowly began to fail.
“Once the damage was done, it was irreversible,” Pho said. “She was on the list prior to being on dialysis, however … there aren’t too many donors and it’s very difficult to get a kidney. So the window closed where her kidneys were failing, but she didn’t need to be on dialysis.”
Michelle started dialysis about three months before she died. She was on the transplant waiting list for about three to four years combined.
“There just aren’t that many donors and it’s very difficult knowing the person you love needs a kidney and there is nothing you can do.”
Each case is very specific, but Pho said that a multi-year wait is not unusual when it comes to organ transplants.
Already prior to the tragedy, Pho had known that Saskatchewan didn’t have a registry.
“While my wife was sick it was something on our mind that maybe it was something we can get involved with, helping fundraise or something else after she got her kidney, and of course that didn’t happen,” Pho said.
Life took its course and went the way it did. About a year ago Pho learned that the government was moving forward with an organ and tissue donation registry and he made a decision to become involved in any way that he could. The government asked Pho to share Michelle’s story and be a part of the campaign in that way.
In just a week, the video in which Pho shares Michelle’s story was viewed by thousands of people.
“I was shocked, I’m not an expert on social media, but my video had nearly 15,000 views (as of Sept. 10) on Facebook, which is incredible. And that’s just people sharing my page, I don’t have a broad footprint,” Pho said.
He added that sharing the story in such a raw format is really hard, but he hopes that it will make people think and make a decision that will save lives.
The new registry allows Saskatchewan residents to make a formal declaration of their decision to become an organ and tissue donor. The registry has been a key part of the government’s plan to modernize the province’s organ and tissue donation system and improve donation rates while reducing transplant waitlists.
Pho was among the first ones to register. He said it doesn’t take much time, but may change the world for someone.
“It wasn’t a tough decision for me to register because I know the impact that an organ donor can have on a person or a family that is waiting for an organ. So for me, it was an easy decision to make and an important one to do,” Pho said.
“It’s the easiest way that we can save lives. It takes about two minutes to register. All you need is your health card.”
One tissue donor can help 75 people, and one organ donor can save eight lives. Registering as a donor is the only secure and guaranteed way to make the decision known. Any Saskatchewan resident 16 years or older is eligible to register.
“With this organ and tissue donor registry, we have another way to support grieving families by confirming the intentions of their loved ones,” Saskatchewan Health Authority medical director for donations Dr. Joann Kawchuk said. “Every person who registers increases the chance of a longer, better life for people waiting for a transplant.”
Pho said that after the launch of the new registry a lot of people he knows, including his family in Estevan, reached out to him, and many people acknowledged their decision to become organ and tissue donors as well.
“I believe that the take up for the registry will be very strong, people do care about this. So many people know of someone or they know someone that is in need of a transplant or an organ,” Pho added.
To watch the video testimony, go to www.estevanmercury.ca.
For more information and to register people can go to www.givelifesask.ca.